Schools
 

Principals file paperwork to convert Ben Franklin, Bethune elementary schools to charters

Two elementary school principals involved in a failed bid this spring to convert New Orleans’ remaining traditional schools to charters have filed paperwork saying they want to take over their schools.

Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School and Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology are two of the last four district-run schools in Orleans Parish. The rest are charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.

The new charter efforts indicate that New Orleans could again be on its way to becoming the first city in the country that only has charter schools.

“We are interested in chartering in order to preserve the Benjamin Franklin Way in this impending all-charter district,” Franklin principal Charlotte Matthew said in an email.

One of the four remaining traditional schools, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, is slated to close next spring. That would leave just one, and there’s another application round later this school year.

This spring, Franklin and Bethune were part of a failed bid by a charter group, made up of principals and central-office staff, to take over five traditional schools. The group, ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization, withdrew its application after receiving a poor review.

The involvement of central-office employees in ExCEED’s application raised questions of conflicts of interest. The person who oversaw the school district’s traditional schools quit her job to head ExCEED. This summer, the state ethics board ruled she could take a job with the school district again.

The ExCEED group included Matthew and Bethune principal Mary Haynes-Smith. The conflict-of-interest issues related to the central-office employees don’t apply to principals because they wouldn’t be involved in the district’s recommendation on whether to award a charter.

Ingrid Thomas has a first- and third-grader at Franklin, often called Baby Ben. She plans to enroll her toddler this year in the pre-kindergarten program.

Thomas was critical of Matthew’s endorsement of the ExCEED bid, and she continues to worry.

“I just don’t have confidence that she will entertain feedback she doesn’t want to hear because she didn’t last year,” she said.

She said Matthew “should poll parents to see if it’s something the school community wants.”

In the past, the school district required parents and staff to vote on charter conversions. That was not a requirement last year, and district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said it won’t be this year, either.

The principals’ interest in chartering is not a complete surprise.

The remaining charter schools that answer to the state-run Recovery School District are scheduled to return to the authority of the Orleans Parish School Board next year. To prepare for the new schools, the Orleans school district is setting itself up more as an organization that monitors charters rather than one that runs schools itself.

As ExCEED was working on its bid to take over the schools, superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. advocated for turning the direct-run schools into charters.

He said schools would receive more money from the school district if they became charters. Charter schools do receive more of their per-pupil allotment than traditional schools, but they also must pay for transportation, human resources and other services that are typically handled by a school district.

Most district-run schools in the city that have converted to charters did so under leadership from their own principals.

Matthew, who has led schools in New Orleans for 20 years, reserved the name Legacy of Excellence Inc. on July 19. She registered the nonprofit with the state Monday, the deadline to submit letters of interest to open new schools or take over existing ones.

The Louisiana Secretary of State’s office lists Joe Keeney, the CEO of 4th Sector Solutions, as the nonprofit’s agent. His company provides financial services for several charters in New Orleans.

Keeney confirmed Wednesday he reserved the name for the school. He said the company does not have a contract with the charter organization.

Legacy of Excellence shares two board members with the defunct ExCEED: Tommie Vassel and Yvette Alexis. Vassel, a former Orleans Parish School Board member, is described as a Franklin parent.

The third board member listed is Angela Wilklow, a social worker.

Nonprofits must have three members to submit an application, and seven to sign a charter.

The state requires charter applicants to have the support of three licensed teachers. Baby Ben’s assistant principals Patrice Joseph and Nichelle Logan signed on, along with teacher Tradonya Dominigue.

Haynes-Smith, Bethune’s principal, has been an elementary principal since 1994 and has worked for the Orleans Parish school district since 1987.

Her letter of interest says the charter organization would be called Significant Educators. The name was reserved with the Secretary of State on July 21. The nonprofit was not registered as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the agency’s online records.

Haynes-Smith didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Her letter names three licensed teachers who were employed at Bethune last year: Amanda Broussard, Gwendolyn Dupree and Treneice Scott.

That letter of interest lists six board members: Melrose Biagas, Frank Williams, Lisa Bierria, Suzette Bagneris, Leslie Garibaldi, and Antoinette Boissiere.

During last spring’s failed charter drive, some families demanded traditional schools. Thomas was one of them.

“I still don’t think we need to have an all-charter district,” she said Wednesday.

“I kind of still have a hard time wrapping my head around how these are public entities and an individual like [Matthew] can apply to take over a public entity,” she said.

Other parents in the city advocate for charters because they have autonomy to select teachers and set their curriculum.

Four organizations want to open new schools in Orleans

Including Franklin and Bethune, seven nonprofits submitted letters Monday expressing their desire to charter schools.

That includes Young Audiences of Louisiana, a Jefferson Parish charter school that wants to open a second school in Orleans Parish, and four nonprofits that want to open new schools.

InspireNOLA, which now has five schools, wants to take over an unspecified failing charter elementary school. InspireNOLA was ExCEED’s only competitor last spring and ended up taking over Eleanor McMain Secondary School.

Educator Bryon Arthur, operating as Lyceum Schools, wants to open an all-male kindergarten through 12th grade school called the Delores Taylor Arthur School for Young Men.

The 44th Education Initiative seeks to open a middle school. The group was founded by attorney Kesana Durand, a former charter employee and board member of several charters.

The Center for Resilience would open a “trauma-informed” elementary school, founded by educator and consultant William Murphy and Elizabeth Marcell, who currently runs the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program.

Their application for the Querencia School was denied last year because the school district thought it failed to describe its recruitment strategy and how its therapeutic program would work within the school.

The prospective groups will receive feedback from Orleans Parish school district staff next week. Complete applications are due at the end of the month.

This story was updated after publication to include a comment from Franklin principal Charlotte Matthew. (Aug. 11, 2017)

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